In The Crosswind Review
Stalin's ethnic cleansing of Estonia in 1941, which consisted in rounding up 60,000 "patriots" and their families for deportation to work camps in Siberia, is a significant event in the country's history but not one that is not widely known about elsewhere. In all, it is estimated that around 590,000 people in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were casualties of what has become known as the Soviet Holocaust. Accurate figures and documentary evidence however are hard to come by since the Soviets, unlike the Nazis, did not photograph or keep records of their actions during this purge.
Such is the gravity of this historical event that it still has deep resonance even with the countries' younger generation of filmmakers who clearly feel the need to provide some kind of testimony to the events of 1941. The grim brutality of it is depicted with harsh realism by Finnish director Antti J. Jokinen in his 2012 film Purge ('Puhdistus'). Martti Helde's approach in In the Crosswind ('Risttuules') is quite different; more arty and poetic in its stylisations, showing a strong Tarkovsky influence in its meditative gaze on people and their relationship with the landscape around them, but ultimately it is no less hard-hitting.
The cinematic language of Tarkovsky can be picked out in little details, in the black-and-white cinematography, in a snowy forest of birch trees out of Ivan's Childhood (most pertinent here for its war subject), for the flowing camera movements and apocalyptic tone of The Sacrifice, with something of the surreal poetic vision of family reminiscence in Mirror, and even the implacable hypnotic tracking through a sinister landscape reminds one of the sensations evoked by Stalker. Alexander Sokurov inevitably also comes to mind, but Martti Helde's film amounts to much more than just a compendium of arthouse techniques, expanding on this language and developing his own distinct outlook that feels appropriate for the subject and content matter of In the Crosswind, the camera flowing scene after scene through a static tableau vivant of horror.
For the main body of the film there is little or no movement other than that of the camera. Helde recreates a relatively small number of significant scenes, populating them with static figures; a family being ripped from their house; the misery of being deported on a cramped train; life working in the frozen, muddy wastes of Siberia. The camera flows in and around the figures, weaving through a house, the platform of a train station, or the inside of a carriage, sometimes turning around to see them in a slightly altered position. It feels like a series of single shot takes, and although there are some Citizen Kane-like transitions, there is no technical trickery involved here in editing or stitching scenes together.
It creates a 3D-like quality - one that Gaspar Noé has also been continuing to explore - emphasising the emotional as well as the spacial and temporal state of the scene, giving the viewer time to take in the people, the place and the relationship between all these elements and their surroundings. The scenes are obviously carefully chosen for their significance and their ability to encapsulate a wider context within a single moment. The director's use of unpublished and unsent letters, written by an exiled woman Erna separated from her husband Heldur whose whereabouts and fate are unknown to her, creates a kind of narrative that, when combined with the heightened emotional state of the imagery, takes the experience of one person and allows it to be applied it to the experience and the fates of many.
There is method behind such an extreme stylisation. While the framing scenes are more conventionally shot, the scenes of the 15 year exile until after the death of Stalin are captured as if time has simply ceased to flow. Nature however seems exempt from this, particularly the winds or crosswinds that blow across the bleak landscapes. In addition, while some of the imagery is familiar to what one would expect to see in a holocaust film, the technique employed here, while it appears detached and dispassionate, actually proves to be more emotionally involving and evocative of the horror of war. Like Picasso's Guernica, it manages to make an even greater statement by avoiding the kind of horrific realism that actually ends up distancing and alienating the viewer. This is an event beyond realistic treatment. As Erda says in one of her letters about her experience of deportation, it's simply unimaginable for her to even contemplate the scale of what is being endured by the people around here even on a single carriage of the train.
The achievement is all the more remarkable considering that the director Martti Helde is only 27 years old, and actually 23 when he started work on a film that took four years to make while he continually looked around to find the funding to finish it. The Steadicam filming, the period detail in the costumes, the painterly arrangement of the scenes are all hugely impressive, but it's more than just technically accomplished and more than just historical re-enactment. The filming technique strives to go beyond what is merely illustrative, aiming towards something that goes beyond human capacity to adequately express. In the Crosswind succeeds, transcending the individual situation, elevating it to a collective experience and managing to be fully human at the same time.